By ESTHER SMITH
News staff writer
Twenty-four Hood River Valley High School Students didn’t go home Thursday night last week.
They had been plucked from their classrooms during the school day by the Grim Reaper, who took one student out of class every 15 minutes.
Their removal represented the lives lost to alcohol- and drug-related car accidents each day across the country.
“Every 15 Minutes” is a national program designed to let teenagers experience the dangers of drinking and driving without taking the risks. It is put together every two or three years at the high school by the OSSOM Club (Oregon Students for Safety On the Move), with the help of school staff and local law enforcement.
After being removed from class by the Grim Reaper (played by a different staff member each class period), the “newly dead” were taken to a room where they received white face paint, a black hooded cape, and a tombstone to inscribe with their names and dates of death; then they returned to class — but without speaking or interacting with other students for the remainder of the day.
Meanwhile the parents — who had given their permission for their child to be involved — were given mock death notifications at home or work.
The tombstones were placed in a “graveyard” at the school’s entrance, near the remains of a Honda Civic that had been in an alcohol-related accident a few years ago, claiming the life of a local 16-year-old.
Officers from the city and state police departments and sheriff’s office visited classrooms all day, giving talks and demonstrations about drinking and driving. Students were each given the chance to see how alcohol affects vision and perception by donning special goggles that simulate alcohol impairment, and some were issued mock sobriety tests.
“The officers go in and educate and the kids can ask questions,” said Leslie Melby, adviser for the program. “The officers are on a level with the kids so the kids don’t feel threatened.”
After school, the “living dead” were not allowed to go home or even contact their families by phone — they were taken to dinner and a movie, then to the Vagabond Motel for the night. Friday morning they went out to breakfast and then returned to school for an assembly in Bowe Theatre for the junior and senior classes. There, students dramatized the scene of a car accident, complete with light and sound effects.
Probably the most emotional lessons were learned from several guest speakers, including the mother of one of the “dead” students, who found the experience eerie and unnerving despite knowing her daughter was fine; the stepfather of a 19-year-old girl who was killed during a street race in Portland a few years ago; a fellow student whose father died a mere month ago from health problems stemming from a lifetime of drinking — which began in his high school years; and a man who had entered the freeway in eastern Oregon going the wrong direction last fall, causing an accident that injured several HRVHS students. Some of these gut-wrenching stories were told through tears and brought tears to many in the audience.
With these “Every 15 Minutes” events, the OSSOM Club hopes to drive home the message that the decision to consume alcohol or drugs can affect many people, not just the one who drinks or uses, and the potentially dangerous consequences that can come of driving while impaired.